Abstract Expressionism was a term first used in connection with Kandinsky in 1919, but is more commonly associated with post-war American art. Robert Coates, an American critic, coined it in 1946, when referring to the work of Gorky, Pollock and De Kooning. By the 1951 Museum of Modern Art exhibition ‘Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America’, the term was used to refer to all types of non-geometric abstraction.
There are two distinct groups within the movement: Colour Field artists such as Marc Rothko who worked with simple, unified blocks of colour; and the gestural painters like Jackson Pollock who made use of the Surrealist technique of automatism. Not all the artists associated with the term produced either purely abstract or purely expressionist work. Some critics preferred the phrase Action Painting, and because of the concentration of artists in New York, they were also known as the New York School.
The only real connection between Abstract Expressionists was in their artistic philosophy. Publications like Tiger’s Eye, an avant-garde magazine helped to spread their ideas across America. All the painters were influenced by Existentialist ideas, which emphasised the importance of the act of creating, not of the finished object.
Pollock once stated, “I continue to get further away from the conventional painters tools, such as easels, palettes, brushes…I prefer sticks, towels, and dripping fluid paint. When I am painting, I am not aware of what I am doing. I have no fears about making change, destroying images, because painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”
The Surrealists heavily influenced these painters, in fact it was the Surrealists, who having escaped the war in Europe, took up a large number of teaching posts in American colleges. Surrealist exhibitions, for example, by Miro (1941) were also influential in persuading the Abstract Expressionists to express their subconscious feelings and emotions through their art.
The Abstract Expressionists also shared an interest in Jung’s ideas on myth, ritual and memory and conceived an almost romantic view of the artist, seeing their painting as a way of life and themselves as disillusioned commentators on contemporary society after the Depression and the Second World War. Abstract Expressionism dominated the art community for almost two decades.
While the movement had strong ties in America, it had much less of an impact in Europe. Abstract Expressionism focused on making the painting a reflection of the work done by the artist, other movements, including Minimalism, would concentrate on diminishing the importance of the artist and their craftsmanship to glorify the object itself. In some ways, Abstract Expressionism worked to re-establish art to its roots — the relationship between the artist, his work and the impact they had on society.
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” Jackson Pollock.